A leading business expert has attacked doctors for their opposition to suggestions that the NHS should operate as a seven-day-a-week, supermarket-style service.
At the British Medical Association (BMA) annual conference in Edinburgh, chair of council Dr Mark Porter said that that calls for "a Tesco NHS, full-service, 24/7, are just ridiculous when the health service can barely afford its current model."
The new NHS review of urgent and emergency care is prioritising 24/7 care, with recent reports showing that mortality rates rise when care is given out-of-hours, and there are suggestions that routine treatments should also be made available round the clock.
NHS England's medical director, professor Sir Bruce Keogh, has commented that hospitals should learn from Tesco, which has modernised its working practices in order to better meet its customers' needs.
But Dr Porter told the conference he felt "personally offended by the terms in which this debate has been couched."
"Like many of you, I work nights and weekends as well, at a time when much of the private sector is fast asleep and ministers are tucked up soundly in their beds. Let us be clear - we all want urgent care at weekends and evenings to be of the same high standards as patients can expect on weekdays."
“But the calls we sometimes hear for a Tesco NHS, full-service, 24/7, are just ridiculous when the health service care barely afford its current model," said Dr Porter.
However, business expert business expert Sir Gerry Robinson says that while "it is easy for highly-trained doctors to turn their noses up at Tesco-style operations," it is also "short-sighted, ignorant and disgraceful."
"I for one would like to see the NHS learn from and copy working practice from Tesco, in particular, which has constantly modernised to better meet the needs of its customers," says Sir Gerry, writing in the Daily Telegraph.
The Service could be vastly improved, made more efficient, more innovative and - crucially - safer, he goes on.
And while the NHS should be doing more to harness its vast purchasing power to bring down the cost of buying drugs and medical equipment, the Daily Telegraph reported last week that drugmakers appear to be rigging the "specials" market, points out Sir Gerry, who is an ex-chief executive of Granada and former non-executive chairman of Allied Domecq.
"I can almost guarantee that NHS purchasing is not a patch on Tesco's," he writes, suggesting that the firm’s corporate purchasing skills would be hugely helpful to the Service, to establish fair and competitive prices and prevent internal theft. NHS chiefs could find out how to do it simply by looking at the Tesco purchasing handbook, he adds.
Sir Gerry insists that he is not "unwholly unsympathetic" to doctors, who he says are drowning in red tape and risk registers, while hospital managers live in fear of being sued.
But, "of course, mistakes wouldn't happen so often if they took another leaf from Tesco's book and set up proper reporting systems, up and down the chain of command. Instead, the only way the ordinary foot soldier seems to get heard in the NHS is if they turn whistleblower," he writes.
"Absolutely" the NHS should be recruiting its next leaders from outside the NHS, including Tesco, he says, and concludes: "a sophisticated supermarket-style management system wouldn't kill the NHS. It would probably save lives."
- In 2007, Sir Gerry presented a BBC TV series entitled: "Can Gerry Robinson Fix the NHS?"